FRONTLINE VOICES: Lawyer and Advocate Cristina Sevilla on World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

Vital Voices Global Partnership
4 min readJul 30, 2021

This World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, we’re turning to Cristina Sevilla, a dedicated human rights lawyer from the Philippines who’s spent nearly two decades defending survivors and advocating for a victim-centered justice system. In her own words, she shares an expert’s view on key barriers, solutions and possibilities as we commemorate today’s important global marker, which is focused this year around the critical theme, Victims’ Voices Lead the Way. Cristina joined our leadership network in 2013 as a Global Freedom Exchange fellow.

On this year’s theme and the need to center victims’ voices

From early on, in the Philippines, there has been so much focus on law and order, on prosecution and convictions. And I do consider it a myopic approach. Not only because it’s not victim-centered, but because it is not holistic. It will not really prevent or eliminate, by itself, trafficking in persons. And it can actually result in certain unintended consequences, where victims are then re-victimized.

But I really do see that the tide is changing. More than 10 years after the Philippines enacted its Trafficking in Persons Law in 2003, people now are talking more about survivors, listening to their voices, considering their thoughts, their opinions — and that really is a good thing. But it’s not just about listening to survivors, we need to integrate their perspectives with policies. Things are changing, in that sense, but it’s a slow shift and we still have a long way to go.

On the questions we should be asking

What we need to ask is, ‘why do we have victims in the first place? Why are people getting victimized?’ Once we can answer that, then we can actually know what the solution should be. That is what we should be asking, really — ‘what are the root causes?’

On rethinking conventional metrics

After more than a decade of focusing mostly on a law and order approach in the Philippines, yes, we can see huge numbers on convictions, for example. But have we really analyzed the data, with respect to the number of convictions, the number of victims? Because these numbers can be interpreted in different ways. We need to analyze how convictions happen. For example, last year, more or less, about 80% of convictions were plea bargains. We really need to analyze what is the impact of that for the criminal justice system, and for victims — instead of only being interested in the conviction numbers themselves.

On what a truly feminist approach looks like

Being a feminist actually doesn’t mean that you just focus on women. I think translating policy with a feminist perspective looks at protecting all genders from violence or exploitation. That’s what I want to see. Our laws and policies and resources should all be focused on ensuring that every member of the population should not be victimized.

On redirecting focus holistically

We have to be able to define and understand trafficking well — because if we’re not able to do that, then we’re not really looking at what trafficking is. Trafficking is not necessarily only women and children. Historically, women have always been marginalized. And of course many victims are women and children. But there are so many other forms of trafficking that we need to consider — boys and men are being exploited in fishing vessels and shipyards, for example. But our focus is not there, and neither are our resources. When we fail to get the real numbers, the real situation, in a sense, we are failing all victims.

Being a feminist, I think it’s important to ensure that all individuals are actually protected, that they are not victimized. Because even if one gender is victimized, it affects the entire family, it affects the entire community and the entire country as well. When we really look at the bigger perspective, it is interconnected, it affects everyone.

About Cristina:

Cristina is a human rights lawyer who believes that for a justice system to be truly “just” it must work with and for survivors of gender-based violence, particularly, the defenseless and marginalized. Her career has been defined by the idea that the political is personal, and real change requires both advocacy in court and in congress. She has therefore split her time between these two arenas — on the one hand going to battle in court time and time again on behalf of women and children who are victims of violence and exploitation — and on the other hand working to build a better justice system that is victim-centered and empowering.

For over a decade, Cristina served as a lawyer for ECPAT-Philippines, representing child victims of sex trafficking. To maximize these efforts, in 2014, Cristina founded Action Against Violence and Exploitation, Inc. (ACTVE), a non-government organization engaged in policy advocacy, research, capacity building, and provision of legal aid to marginalized women and children through volunteerism. In addition to direct legal service and policy advocacy, Cristina has trained thousands of law enforcers, social workers and direct service providers across the Philippines in her pursuit of enhanced access to support and justice for survivors of violence. However, Cristina’s work transcends her own country’s borders. She previously served as Regional Human Rights Lawyer for Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA)/World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), through which she mentored lawyers from across Asia to help them more effectively litigate torture cases before national and international courts.

In her nearly two decades in service to her communities within and outside of the Philippines, Cristina has paid forward her education and experience to galvanize survivor-centered system reform in order to increase both the access to, and quality of, justice around the world.

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